Long live the troll-slayer: a tribute to Shauna Hunt and others like her

This week cyber misogyny once again made headlines with the on-air harassment of CityNews reporter Shauna Hunt. Hunt was interviewing a pair of soccer fans when a man came up to her and yelled into her microphone “f*** her right in the pu***.” Apparently “FHRITP,” as it’s known, became a viral internet phenomenon after comedian John Cain made the comment in a series of staged broadcasts for a fake news agency.

Having had enough of this harassment, Hunt confronted the heckler and his friends who defended their conduct as “f***ing amazing” and “f***ing hilarious.” Hunt posted the video on Twitter and asked her followers to retweet. It went viral. One of these men has since been fired from his job at Hydro One for his involvement in the incident.

Also this week, the hashtag #MyTroll has been trending after the online harassment-reporting platform HeartMob asked Twitter users to share their stories. The results are staggering.

In light of these events, I thought I too would share my experience with cyber misogyny.

I’m relatively new to the blogging world. I started my blog last fall after years of consideration. Why did it take me years to start writing? One word: comments. Sure, I was a lawyer. Sure, I had been to court, taught courses, spoken publically and faced questions and critique from many intelligent people, some of whom did not agree with me. But none of that was nearly as scary as opening myself up to the internet.

I’ve been blogging for several months now and all things considered I have been fairly lucky. I have yet to be threatened with murder or rape like blogger Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency. I have yet to receive a bomb threat like classics professor Mary Beard. And I have yet to have a traumatic childhood memory triggered by a misogynistic tweet like actress Ashley Judd.

I have, however, been called duplicitous, ugly, whiny, a f***ing hack and a precious little snowflake. I have been told (many times) that no one gives a sh** about what I have to say and that I should shut up and move on with my life. This one is my favourite. It was in the comments section of a Province article where I was advocating for women to have the choice between wearing shorts and a skirt for field hockey:  

Joe-Rachel Portelance: 9 out of 10 times these days it’s a woman whining and complaining about some rule or right etc…… So ya I do understand that a lot of the news only really centers on women complaining about one thing or another. Nor our fault they got the short end of the evolutionary stick. If the Province keeps it up they might drive away some of its male readers due to getting sick of women’s complaints. Especially those damn inquiries into the murdered women… sorry cupcakes a lot more men get murdered than women…you do not see the men whining for inquiry after inquiry hence my statement of feminine BS.

What have I done to deserve these attacks? I dared to open my mouth and discuss issues that impact women today. You know, roughly 50% of the population? These comments reveal that trolls do not care about engaging in a debate. Their only objective is to scare women into silence.

According to Mary Beard, this response should come as no surprise. As she points out, men have been silencing outspoken women since the days of the ancients. “It doesn’t much matter what line of argument you take as a woman. If you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say that prompts it –it’s the fact that you are saying it.”

Fortunately for me, my short blogging career has also introduced me to a related phenomenon, and that is troll-slaying. Troll-slaying is the practice of calling out internet cyber misogynists and holding them accountable for their actions. I love troll-slayers. Without these brave men and women who risk exposing themselves to hate and ridicule by defending women under attack, reading the comments section of blog posts and news articles would be simply unbearable. Here are three more troll-slayers I’d like to celebrate.

  • Mary Beard

This classics professor at the University of Cambridge has been a vocal critic of cyber misogyny after she herself became a target. Beard has been sent rape threats, bomb threats and once had an image of herself as genitalia circulated on the internet.

So far Beard has been fairly successful in shutting her trolls down.  She has discovered that, quite often, she receives not only an apology but also an explanation from her trolls when she publishes their remarks widely.  For instance, Beard received an apology from a twenty-year-old university student who tweeted “You filthy old slut.  I bet your vagina is disgusting” after one of her followers offered to inform the student’s mother of his online behaviour.

Despite the nasty things the trolls say about her, Beard manages to remain compassionate.  She has been known to correspond with her trolls and help them out.  Beard is even writing a letter of reference for the university student troll.  “He is going to find it hard to get a job, because as soon as you Google his name that is what comes up,” she said. “And although he was a very silly, injudicious, and at that moment not very pleasant young guy, I don’t actually think one tweet should ruin your job prospects.”      

  • Charlotte Laws

Charlotte Laws’ daughter Kayla found herself on a website called IsAnyoneUp.com– an online repository of revenge porn– after her email had been hacked. Not only did the website owner Hunter Moore publish sexual photos of his victims, he also encouraged fans of the website to seek out and post as much identifying information about the person in the photo. Moore, who earned the notorious title of Most Hated Man on the Internet, was proud of the fact that his website ruined lives.

Laws immediately came to her daughter’s defence, and for two years dedicated herself to getting the photo taken down and having Moore arrested for violating copyright law and hacking activities. Moore became the expert in this murky area of law while tracking down and interviewing other victims, researching cases and pushing to get the FBI involved. After two years, Moore was arrested and charged with multiple counts of conspiracy, unauthorized access to a protected computer to obtain information and aggravated identity theft. His website was shut down and he entered a guilty plea in February.       

  • Detective Lloyd Briscoe

PicsArtNo, I’m not talking about the detective from Law & Order. This was the troll-slaying persona adopted by my little sister around the time of my field hockey skirt/shorts media blitz. While I was fielding calls from reporters and radio show hosts, my sister was keeping tabs on the comments sections and calling out anyone and everyone who left a nasty message. Here are a couple examples of her work:

Lloyd: Let each player choose what they want to wear! I can’t believe this is even a discussion! What century are we in? Because it is tradition? You know what else is tradition? Women not being able to go to school or being allowed to have jobs? Not using birth control? Fathers choosing their daughters husbands. Come on people!

Lloyd: @NoMoreBull “Now they want the world to change to suit them”. Yes, that is how we make positive changes in the world. To question old, out dated, sexist traditions that can make people, for whatever reason feel uncomfortable.

Thank you to my sister and all the other brave troll-slayers out there. May your courage and conviction inspire us all to take a stand against cyber misogyny.

Vote YES for Women in Metro Vancouver’s Transit Referendum

With only three weeks left to vote in the Metro Vancouver Transit and Transportation Referendum, less than 30% of residents have cast their ballots.   If you’re a procrastinator like me and that referendum package is hiding somewhere underneath last month’s bank statements, this reminder is for you. In case you haven’t decided how you intend to vote, here is my take on the Referendum, from a feminist perspective.

I’m sure you’ve heard how voting YES will keep Vancouver livable as we gain 1 million new residents by 2045. How voting YES will protect the environment. How voting YES will reduce traffic congestion and provide better commuting options. But you probably haven’t heard how voting YES will promote women’s equality.

The simple fact is, safe, reliable and accessible transit is a women’s issue. Women rely on transit more than men. A Case Study on public transportation use in Western Europe and North America found that 75% of all bus journeys are undertaken by women. One reason for this might be that only 30% of women have access to the use of a car during daytime hours.

Not only do women use public transportation more than men, we also use it differently. Women do not simply go from place A to place B in a day, for example from home to work. Rather, as primary caregivers and members of the informal and formal labour force, women make more complex journeys. One trip may involve multiple destinations for diverse purposes like dropping children off at daycare or school, going to work or picking up groceries. It is very common for women to have to get off at multiple destinations, pay multiple fares and travel during off peak hours. Many women, particularly women of colour, need affordable and 24 hour public transit because they are concentrated in low-wage, night shift, temporary or part-time work. As such, by necessity they must travel through the city very early in the morning and late at night when public transit is typically unreliable and trips less safe.

Women also experience public transportation spaces differently because of the diverse forms of gender-based violence that occur on a daily basis, including sexual abuse, harassment, groping, the use of vulgar language, intimidation and assault. A study by the World Bank in Peru concluded that while men’s first priority with public transit is speed, women’s is personal security. Accessibility is also a priority for women. More often than men, women must navigate public transportation while carrying small children, children’s strollers and packages.

For all of these reasons, women need accessible transportation that runs reliably off commuter channels and outside of peak hours. Transportation that takes us near schools, daycares, shops and employment locations so we may have access to education, healthcare resources and employment opportunities.   We need well-maintained footpaths, pedestrian streets, bike lanes and well-lit sidewalks that connect us to bus stops and SkyTrain stations. And we need all of this to be affordable.

The Mayors’ Council Vision may not address all of these needs, but it does make important strides. Here are some of the highlights of the Vision:

  • Transit will be accessible to more residents across Metro Vancouver
  • Light rail transit will be expanded into Surrey and Langley to offer more reliable transportation to these rapidly growing communities.
  • Bus service will be improved in new and growing lower density neighbourhoods across the region.
  • HandyDART service will increase by 30%.
  • Transit will run more frequently, outside of peak hours.
  • Bus service will be increased 25% across Metro Vancouver.
  • All-day bus service will be more frequent, with a significant expansion of the routes that provide service every 15 minutes or better, all day, 7 days a week.
  • 70% of Metro Vancouver residents will have transit service so frequent throughout the day a schedule is not needed.
  • Night bus service will increase by 80%.
  • There will be more safe alternatives to transit.
  • There will be 2,700 kilometers of new bikeways, including 300 kilometers of fully traffic separated routes making cycling a safer choice for both cyclists and motorists.
  • Walking and waiting facilities at or near transit stops and stations will be improved for better connections to transit.
  • Moving around the city will take less time.
  • Traffic congestion will be reduced saving drivers and transit users 20-30 minutes per day on many of the region’s most congested corridors.

If the referendum does not pass, we are looking at a deterioration in our existing levels of transit. The Mayors’ Council estimates that within 10 years we will need an additional $140 million per year just to maintain the quality of service and infrastructure we currently have. Even with this level of investment we will likely see worse overcrowding, more passengers being passed up by full buses and trains, no new or expanded transit service for growing communities and no new investment in pedestrian connectivity or safety. For women, this will mean more difficult access to transit, more time spent waiting for transit and fewer safe alternatives to transit.

Seems like an obvious choice to me. Vote YES. Support the women of Metro Vancouver.

Cyber misogyny: the new frontier for hate

On August 3, 2013, 14-year-old Hannah Smith hanged herself in her bedroom. In the weeks leading up to her death, Hannah was subjected to cruel taunts and insults about her weight and a family death on Ask.fm, a question and answer social networking site that allows anonymous participation. According to Hannah’s father, she went to Ask.fm to look for advice on the skin condition eczema. Instead, she got bullies on Ask.fm urging her to drink bleach and cut herself.

Last week, I started a series about the different ways sexism is impacting girls and women today and how feminism can be utilized to help them. This is the second post in that series. This post is about cyber misogyny.

In many ways, cyber misogyny is an old issue taken to new extremes. Sexual harassment, domestic violence, hate speech, stalking and threats have long been problems for women. However, in real space, where people’s identities are known, it is easier to identify and punish abusers. The Internet offers expanded opportunities to perpetuate harassment and abuse. At the same time, it allows abusers to avoid social and legal consequences for their actions by hiding behind anonymity. In its report “#CyberMisogyny: Using and strengthening Canadian legal responses to gendered hate and harassment online” West Coast LEAF calls the Internet “the new frontier for hate.”

The term cyber misogyny encompasses a wide range of conduct. In this post, I will discuss the five types of online violence discussed in West Coast LEAf’s report.

  • Revenge porn

Revenge porn can loosely be described as the non-consensual distribution of intimate images. Revenge porn is often associated with the termination of an intimate relationship and is disturbingly common. According to the US-based Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, one in ten ex-partners has threatened to expose a risqué photo of their ex. Sixty per cent of them follow through. Ninety per cent of victims are women.

It is not only teenagers who are affected by revenge porn. This year, well known celebrities including Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton and Kirsten Dunst had intimate photos stolen and released publically. In Canada, the Associate Chief Justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Manitoba had nude photos taken by her husband posted online without her consent.

Revenge porn is so prevalent numerous websites exist for the sole purpose of ruining people’s lives by posting embarrassing photos or forwarding them to family members, friends and business contacts. Because of websites like these and the hundreds of thousands of daily viewers, women have lost jobs, economic opportunities and personal relationships.

Studies by Cyber Civil Rights show that 47 per cent of revenge porn victims contemplate suicide. Ninety-three per cent suffer significant emotional distress.

  • Sexting

Sexting is the sending of sexy, nude or partially nude photos via cell phone. Recent studies show that sexting has become a fairly common practice among young people as part of their sexual exploration. In a study involving students in grades 4-11 across Canada, researchers found that eight per cent of students in grades 7-11 with access to a cell phone have sent a sext. Twenty-four per cent have received a sext. The numbers rise as students get older.

While youth seem to feel ok about sending sexual images of themselves to others, when those images are forwarded without their consent, the results can be devastating. Just under one quarter of teens who said they had sent a sext of themselves reported that the person who received the sext forwarded it to someone else.  Several teen suicides have been linked to the forwarding of nude photos and the resulting harassment and abuse.

  • Online sexual exploitation of children and youth

Online child sexual exploitation includes child pornography, luring, child prostitution, child sex tourism and child trafficking. The number of child sexual exploitation reports received by Cybertip.ca, a national tipline for reporting online sexual exploitation of youth, has increased from 179 reports in 2002/2003 to 7,913 reports in 2009/2010.

The vast majority (90.2 per cent) of reports between September 2002 and June 2010 pertained to child pornography.

  • Cyberstalking

Cyberstalking includes monitoring email communications, sending abusive messages, sending viruses, using the victim’s online identity to send false messages to others and using online sites to collect a victim’s personal information and whereabouts.

Technology, including social networking sites and global positioning systems, facilitate stalking behaviour by making it easier for perpetrators to keep tabs on the activities and location of their targets.

These technologies also make it more difficult for victims of domestic violence to escape their abuser. Electronic communications now play a role in nine out of ten domestic violence situations.

Statistics from the U.S. Justice Department suggest that 850,000 American adults, mostly women, are targets of cyberstalking each year. A study of youth conducted by MTV found that more than half surveyed had experienced abuse through social and digital media. Seventy-six per cent felt that digital abuse was a serious problem for people their age.

  • Hate speech

Messages promoting hate and glorifying violence against women proliferate on the Internet. Unfortunately, thanks to a recent amendment to the federal Human Rights Act, gender-based hate speech is no longer prohibited under Canadian federal law.

Sadly, it is not uncommon for outspoken feminists to be threatened with rape and murder for their online presence. In 2007, well-known blogger and software developer Kathy Sierra shut down her blog and cancelled public appearances after she was subjected to threats of rape and strangulation and her personal information, including her address and social security number, were leaked. This year, feminist blogger Anita Sarkeesian cancelled an appearance at Utah State University after an email threatened the deadliest school shooting in American history.

In 2006, a study showed that individuals writing under female names received twenty-five times more sexually threatening and malicious comments than those writing under male names.

Unfortunately, cyber misogyny in its many forms is too often trivialized by the public. Many consider online bullying an inconvenience that should simply be ignored. Others respond that “boys will be boys,” especially on the Internet. This leaves women with a stark choice: tolerate the abuse or opt out of life online.

So what can we do, as feminists, to protect women and girls from the serious repercussions of cyber misogyny? According to West Coast LEAF, the varied nature of cyber misogyny means that there is no quick fix, and a wide range of strategies will be required. Three such strategies are information gathering, law reform and public education.

  • Information gathering

In order to create effective solutions, we need to fully understand the problem. West Coast LEAF recommends the government create a new office housed within the federal Ministry on the Status of Women to conduct research, facilitate dialogue and make recommendations to government about appropriate legal responses to cyber misogyny.

  • Law reform

A major contributor to the prevalence of cyber misogyny is that on the Internet, lawlessness reigns. Holding harassers and hatemongers legally accountable for their actions is one way to educate the public and send a strong message that these behaviours will not be tolerated.

On December 9, 2014, Bill C-13, the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act, became law. This legislation makes it a criminal offence to knowingly publish, distribute, transmit, sell, make available or advertise intimate images. The Bill also provides courts the authority to order the seizure of intimate images and to order the custodian of the computer system on which the image is made available to delete the material. Only time will tell, but one major impediment to the effectiveness of this legislation is that it only applies to Canadian servers.

Unfortunately, in addition to these important cyberbullying provisions, the Bill also includes broad law enforcement provisions which have raised significant privacy concerns and are likely unconstitutional.

While the cyberbullying provisions of Bill C-13 are a step in the right direction, they are not enough. As we’ve seen in the areas of domestic violence and sexual assault, criminal law is often not an effective means of addressing violence against women. Criminal convictions are rare and often come at a significant personal cost to the victim. As such, we should be exploring other legal options that are more victim-friendly.

As an example, provincial governments could enact legislation creating a “cyberbullying” tort which would allow victims to sue for cyberbullying. This way, victims could receive monetary compensation for the harms experienced.

Provincial governments could also follow Nova Scotia’s lead and amend Education Acts to create a legislated duty on principals, vice-principals and teachers to take disciplinary action in cases of harassment and abuse, whether it occurs on or off school property, when such behaviour has a negative impact on students’ ability to feel safe and learn at school.

The federal government should also reinstate the hate speech provision of the Canadian Human Rights Act repealed in June.

  • Education

Another way to promote a culture of respect, acceptance and ethical behaviour in schools is to make sure that human rights and non-discrimination are an essential part of the school curricula throughout a child’s education. Education about good “digital citizenship” is also crucial.

Jessica Logan, an Ohio high school senior, ended her life after her ex-boyfriend forwarded a nude photo of her to everyone at her school. For months Jessica was cruelly harassed by the other girls at her school who called her a slut and a whore. Her mother found her hanging in her closet on July 3, 2008.

Jessica Logan, Hannah Smith, Hope Witsell, Rehtaeh Parsons, Amanda Todd, and others ended their lives because of the effects of cyber misogyny. It is time we took this issue seriously. In case you needed another reason why we still need feminism, this is it.


In defence of the “F” word: why we need feminism now more than ever

I started blogging a few months ago because I’d had enough of the smear campaign against feminism that has been underway for many years. Like the #WomenAgainstFeminism phenomenon on Tumblr where women would take photographs of themselves holding signs that state why they do not need feminism, such as, “I don’t need feminism because my self-worth is not directly tied to the size of my victim complex.”   Or the recent Time magazine article which included “feminist” in a list of annoying words that readers could vote to ban from public discourse. Or the public distancing from feminism by celebrities like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, who, for better or worse are role models for young girls.

These anti-feminism sentiments have led smart, progressive people to distance themselves from a movement that’s aim is equality. I know because I’m married to one. My partner is a strong woman. She grew up playing hockey and baseball with boys because our small town didn’t have girls’ teams. She has always known what she wants and isn’t particularly concerned with conforming to societal expectations. She is tough. She is egalitarian. But she is not a feminist.

And she’s not the only one. Most polls say that fewer than half of younger women identify with feminism.

From my conversations with my wife, I’ve learned a thing or two about anti-feminism sentiments. In many ways, anti-feminism campaigns are grounded in misunderstandings. Misunderstandings about what it means to be a feminist.

I’m not a feminist. I hail men, I love men, I celebrate American male culture – beer, bars, and muscle cars.” – Lady Gaga

Misunderstandings about what feminism stands for.

No, I wouldn’t say feminist-that’s too strong. I think when people hear feminist, it’s like, ‘Get out of my way, I don’t need anyone.”- Kelly Clarkson

And misunderstandings about where women are at in terms of equality.

“I don’t need feminism because men are now the true victims of discrimination.”

It’s this last misunderstanding that I’m most concerned about. It’s true that women have made a lot of progress in the last forty or fifty years. But it would be a mistake to believe feminism is no longer necessary. The way I see it, sexism still abounds. Both in the ways it always has and in completely new ways.

How far we’ve come

Let me start by acknowledging that women’s equality has come a long way since the 1970s, especially in terms of women’s education and participation in the workforce.

Young women in Canada are pursuing post-secondary education at impressive rates and are now more likely than male youth to hold a university degree. In the United States, women earn almost 60 per cent of undergraduate degrees and 60 per cent of all master’s degrees. They also hold almost 52 per cent of all professional jobs.

In terms of labour force participation, women have gone from 37.97 per cent of the workforce in 1970 to 47.21 per cent of the workforce during 2006-2010. Women have also made significant gains in certain occupations. In 1970, very few women were accountants, police officers, lawyers, pharmacists and doctors. Between 2006 and 2010, 60 per cent of accountants were women, 52.6 per cent of pharmacists, 32.4 per cent of physicians and 33.4 per cent of lawyers.

Rates of domestic violence have also declined significantly since 1999. This decline is partly due to increased social equality and financial freedom for women, which makes it easier for them to leave abusive relationships at earlier stages. However, after falling for a decade, rates of domestic violence have now flat-lined. In 2009, the rate of self-reported spousal violence was the same as in 2004. Unfortunately, reporting rates have not improved over the years. Victims of domestic violence are now less likely to report an incident to police.

How far we have to go

Despite these significant gains, women still lag substantially behind men when it comes to their representation in leadership positions. For example, only four per cent of CEOs in Canada’s top 500 companies are women. Ninety-six per cent are men.

Women are also seriously outnumbered among Canada’s elected representatives. Although there are more women in politics now than in 1974, when only four per cent of MPs were women, men still outnumber women four to one among Canada’s elected representatives. And the Conservative caucus is a mere 17 per cent female compared to more than 40 per cent for the NDP.

Women also have a long way to go in terms of pay equity. Even with a university degree, women on average earned almost $30,000 less than men in 2008.

In some areas, women are actually losing ground. For instance, the percentage of women appointed to Canada’s more than 200 federal tribunals, boards, agencies and Crown corporations has dropped from 37 per cent before Harper’s Conservatives took power in 2006, to 32.5 per cent. The numbers for judge appointments are even worse. Fewer than a third of federally-appointed judges by the Conservatives were women. By comparison, nearly 40 per cent of the judges appointed in 2005 by the then Liberal government were women. The Supreme Court of Canada’s high-water mark for women judges was four out of nine. Under Harper, we have slipped to three. As we saw with the attempted appointment of Marc Nadon, the Conservatives have no intention of remedying the imbalance.

Despite these stark comparisons, Federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay has tried to defend his government’s low rate of female appointments by blaming women. Earlier this year he stated that women don’t apply to be judges because they fear the job will take them away from their children– and that children need their mothers more than their fathers.

In BC, the numbers for judicial appointments are no better. Last fall, retired B.C. Supreme Court judge Donna Martinson wrote that only five women and one non-Caucasian were included among 31 judicial appointments since January 2009.

Violence against women is another area where progress has stalled or started to backslide. Rates of self-reported violent victimization against women have not decreased between 1999 and 2009. In 2010, the rate of intimate partner homicide committed against females increased by 19 per cent, the third increase in four years.

In Canada, the backsliding of women’s progress may be partially attributable to our government’s lack of commitment to women’s equality. In 2006, the Conservatives cut Status of Women Canada’s budget by 37 percent and closed 12 of its 16 regional offices. They also eliminated funding to women’s groups doing research, advocacy and lobbying.

This may be one reason the UN Annual Human Development Index for 2012 revealed that inequality in Canada is actually growing.

New forms of misogyny

Beyond the traditional indicators of women’s progress, we see girls facing new forms of sexism in their daily lives. In many ways, these new forms are even more pervasive and difficult to escape. Like cyberbullying, the sexualisation of women and girls in the media and the trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation.

The effects of these new forms of misogyny are devastating. Eighty per cent of ten year old girls in America say they have been on a diet. The number one magic wish for young girls age 11 to 17 is to be thinner. With these numbers it should come as no surprise that we are seeing record declines in mental health among adolescent girls.

We are also seeing high levels of sexual violence. In 2008, over 11,000 sexual assaults of girls under the age of 18 were reported to police in Canada. Since only about ten per cent of assaults are reported, the actual number is much higher. Rates of sexual assault are much higher for certain populations of girls. Tragically, about 75 per cent of Aboriginal girls under the age of 18 have been sexually abused.

We are also seeing high levels of sexual exploitation on a global scale. The U.S. State Department estimates that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year. Eighty per cent of them are women and girls trafficked for sexual exploitation.

The way I see it, feminism is not irrelevant. Girls today need feminism now more than ever. In the next several posts, I will be exploring the new ways sexism is impacting girls today, and how feminism can be utilized to help them.


Picture: “feminism” by Jay Morrison is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Vancouver field hockey players forced to wear skirts for (at least) another year

If you’d have told me when I was twelve, and writing my first speeches about equality for my local Rotary Club, that my first real experience of discrimination would be at the hands of a field hockey league, I’d have thought you were joking. Then again, if you’d have told me when I was twelve that at 28 I would be forced to play a sport I love wearing a spandex miniskirt I would not wear to the bar, I probably would have had a similar reaction.

As some of you will already know, I have taken on the mandatory skirt for women field hockey players as somewhat of a pet project. For those of you who don’t already know, here it is in a nutshell.

I’ve played field hockey since I was 13. It’s a great sport. But there is one problem. Field hockey is the last remaining sport (I know of) that requires its female athletes to play in a skirt. Why is this a problem? Because, as the United Nations and Australian Sports Commission recognize, feminine uniforms sexualize female athletes. This trivializes women’s sports, lowers self-esteem, perpetuates stereotypes, discourages participation and even promotes the sexual harassment of women athletes. I could go on, and in fact I have, here.

In Vancouver, women field hockey players have asked the Vancouver Women’s Field Hockey League to be permitted to play in shorts no fewer than three times in the past few years. Each time their request has been denied.

The last request was made by my team on November 20, 2014.

On that day, I, along with several of my teammates, attended a meeting of the Vancouver Women’s Field Hockey League for one purpose: to change the League constitution to give players the choice to wear shorts as part of their uniform.

We did not have in mind anything radical. We knew that many players like the skirt and so we had no intention of taking that away from them. We merely wanted to give individual players who, like me, might not feel comfortable playing in a skirt, a choice. And so we asked that “or shorts” be added to the definition of uniform in the League constitution.

“Each team shall have its playing uniform, consisting of shirt, skirt or shorts, and socks ready for use by the first league game.”

When it came time for me to introduce the motion, this is what I said:

“My name is Kaity. I am a member of Jokers IV. I’m here today to ask you to support my team’s efforts to make field hockey more inclusive by allowing players to choose between shorts and a skirt as part of their uniform.

This may seem like a trivial issue, but the truth is the mandatory skirt alienates women and girls who, for a number of reasons, do not feel comfortable in the skirt.

I’ve talked to a lot of people about this issue and some of those people have been mothers and fathers of girls. And I can tell you that I have been told many times that some of these girls would choose not to play field hockey for no other reason that their discomfort with the skirt.

The reasons vary. They include self-consciousness about body image, cultural beliefs about modesty and plain discomfort with skirts.

I don’t know about you, but that makes me really sad.

I know if you are here today it is because you love field hockey. And I know you are keenly aware of its wonderful benefits including social connections, community engagement, improved health and stress relief.

I can’t believe anyone would want to purposefully exclude women and girls from these benefits.

Especially when the accommodation is so simple, and would in no way detract from the enjoyment of players who like the skirt and would choose to continue wearing it.

And so I ask you, please, support us in making this wonderful sport more welcoming to all women and girls.”

More than anything, I hoped that this invitation to usher field hockey into a new era of acceptance and inclusivity would be accepted. I hoped to conclude this campaign of mine knowing that, at least in Vancouver, no woman or girl would be forced to quit field hockey because of how the uniform made her feel.

But the field hockey community disappointed me once again. The hour debate that ensued was not about inclusion. It was about semantics and appearances.

Some members claimed to be confused by the wording of the motion. Did the amendment mean that whole teams had to wear shorts? How could the choice be the individual’s when the word “individual” did not appear in the amendment?

Other members thought the amendment must involve replacing the word “uniform” with “designated clothing” because uniform connotes one outfit and not a choice between two. (Just like you can’t call private school uniforms “uniforms” because girls have a choice between skirts and pants, oh wait…)

But by far, the prevailing topic of discussion was how the motion would impact the appearance of the players.

One member expressed the view that as Canada’s largest field hockey league, it was important that our players looked good. Many agreed that an important part of looking good was looking all the same. Another member said her club took a particular interest in the appearance of their players. If one of their players wanted to play in a ball gown, they would say no.

Another was not convinced that any players were discouraged to join field hockey because of the uniform requirement. Her players had always considered the skirt a badge of honour. She disagreed that the skirt sexualizes athletes and noted that shorts can be sexual too if they are short enough.

One member expressed concern that referees would not be able to distinguish between the different teams if the players’ bottoms were not exactly the same. (Oh course the different jerseys and socks would be no help in that regard.)

One club acknowledged that at least one of its teams would choose to wear shorts but expressed concern that this would impact a sponsorship deal it had with a particular uniform supplier.

Sadly, in that full hour discussion, I can recall only one statement in support of the principle of inclusivity. One. But even that statement was quickly followed with a “but” and ultimately did not support the motion.

This stands in sharp contrast to the reactions I’ve witnessed from the general public. Which generally have been reactions of shock and outrage that in 2014 this is still an issue.

Ultimately, someone suggested that the motion be tabled for another day. That motion passed by a vote of 55 to 26.

Defeated, my team made one last request: that until this motion is decided, the penalty for wearing shorts be reduced to a game card notion rather than being kicked out of the game. After all, that had been the penalty for the last three years and continues to be the penalty for other uniform infractions. No one was able to provide a satisfactory explanation why wearing shorts is penalized more severely than any other infraction. Nonetheless, our request was denied by a vote of 41 to 35. And so it stands, no woman wearing shorts will be permitted to play field hockey in Vancouver.

I am generally an optimistic person. I would love to believe that the members present on November 20, 2014 really do care about inclusion and really did just need some more time to discuss the issue with their teams. Two years ago I would have. But I’ve been here before. After witnessing three failed attempts to introduce the option of shorts to field hockey, I am starting to believe that there is real resistance to equality and inclusion in this community. I hope to be proven wrong in February, when this motion is raised for a fourth time. Oh, how I hope. But I am not naive. And I am not holding my breath.


Why women’s voices matter

I recently attended a talk by the Right Honourable Kim Campbell, Canada’s first and only woman Prime Minister. The talk was called, “Women’s Voices: What difference do they make?” It was about women’s unique life experiences and the consequences of ignoring women’s perspectives in politics, business and media.

I had never heard Campbell speak before, so I was eager to attend. I was disappointed to see that few Vancouverites felt the same way. Despite Vancouver’s population of over 600,000 people, the auditorium at Simon Fraser University’s Harbour Centre was only half full. To be fair, the event was not effectively promoted. Nonetheless, I was dismayed to see poor attendance for a talk about the importance of women’s voices.

But I digress.

Campbell is a Conservative and so it won’t surprise you that I didn’t agree with everything said at the talk. It did, however, give me a lot to think about.

Let’s start with where Campbell and I agree. The thesis of the talk was that women’s perspectives are vital. Vital to the creation of good public policy. Vital to public discourse. And vital to the success of modern businesses and organizations.

To illustrate the point, the organizer of the talk, Informed Opinions, discussed a little experiment. Informed Opinions trains women experts to share their ideas through media commentary. Curious to know what differences women’s voices make in terms of focus and content, they created a word cloud from the first 100 published opinion pieces written by their workshop participants. They then compared this word cloud to the most prominent words generated by a similar sampling of op-eds written by male experts.

The clouds contained many similar words, including Canadian, government, health, political, public and work. However, a number of other phrases appeared prominently only in women-penned pieces. Tellingly, these included abuse, assault, benefit, care, children, equality, families, girls, help, justice, services, sexual, support, treatment, violence and women.

In many ways, Campbell’s experience as a woman member of parliament mirrored that experiment. In her talk, Campbell told anecdotes of times she educated an awkwardly silent room of male colleagues about issues such as contraception and sexual assault. Issues that are very prominent in women’s lives, but admittedly were not well understood or considered particularly important by some of her male colleagues.

Given the complex social, economic and environmental challenges we face, it simply does not make sense to make public policy based on the experiences of only half the population. On this point, I wholeheartedly agree with Campbell.

But public policy is not where women’s contribution ends. Research shows that women also play a large role in driving economic growth. In her talk, Campbell referred to various studies that prove women’s positive influence on business.

Let’s look at some facts.

Research suggests that to succeed, businesses should start by promoting women.

As investors, women come out better on almost every count. They are less likely to hold a losing investment for too long. They are less likely to wait for too long to sell a winner. And they are less likely to put too much money into a single investment or to buy a reputedly hot stock without doing sufficient research.

Women also excel as leaders. New studies have found that female managers outshine their male counterparts in almost every measure. Forty-eight per cent of all US firms are owned or controlled by women. Compared to all firms, women-owned firms have triple the growth rate, twice the rate of job creation and are more likely to stay in business. McKinsey & Company found that international companies with more women on their corporate boards far outperformed the average company in return on equity and other measures. Operating profit was also 56 per cent higher.

How can these results be explained? A recent article from Scientific American provides some insight.

In that article, entitled, “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter,” Katherine Phillips discusses decades of research from organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers that demonstrates that being around people who are different makes us more creative, more diligent and harder-working.

Phillips notes that people who are different from one another in race, gender and other dimensions bring unique information and experiences to bear on the task at hand. Diversity promotes hard work and creativity by encouraging the consideration of alternatives. Her conclusion? We need diversity- in teams, organizations and society as a whole- if we are to change, grow and innovate.

So far, Campbell and I are on the same page.

My disagreement comes with what to do about the inadequate representation of women’s voices.

Despite the fact that women constitute roughly half the population and workforce, and more than 60 per cent of university grads, women’s voices continue to be inadequately represented in media, politics and business.

In Canada’s most influential print, broadcast and online new media, male voices outnumber female voices by a factor of four to one.

In Federal politics, only 17% of Conservative Members of Parliament are women. The percentages for the NDP and Liberals are 38% and 25% respectively. BC has the highest rate of women MLAs in Canada at 36%. The other provinces and territories range from 10% (Northwest Territories) to 35% (Ontario).

Status of Women Canada reports that in 2012, women held only ten per cent of seats on Canadian boards. They held only 16 per cent of board seats on FP500 companies. And, on 40 per cent of FP500 boards, women held zero seats.

So what do we do about this serious underrepresentation?

Campbell suggests that women are often shy of power, that we see it as a bad thing and not as a potential to do great good. She suggests that women need to step up and grab power.

This to me, sounds a lot like “lean in,” the message to women from Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook. In her book, appropriately titled “Lean In,” Sandberg suggests that women unintentionally hold themselves back in their careers rather than pursuing their career goals with gusto.

Step up, lean in, whatever you want to call it, is a philosophy that puts the onus on women for their inadequate representation in positions of power rather than the institutions and corporate structures that were made by men and continue to be run by them. It is a philosophy that calls out women for “opting out” of their careers rather than their employers for refusing to foster flexible, supportive environments that are more likely to keep women employees.

But more importantly, in my view, it is a philosophy that distracts us from the real question we should all be asking. It’s not a question of how we force businesses to accept women or their unique tendency to bear children. Nor is it a question of how to force women to work harder or longer. The question is, given what we know about women’s profound impact on the success of various entities, how can organizations justify their exclusion?

At a time when innovation is recognized as a key competitive advantage, the increase in a group’s intelligence attributed to the inclusion of women should be sufficient incentive for organizations in all sectors to work harder at soliciting female participation.

In my view, given what we know about women’s contribution to public policy, science and business, it is simply negligent for public and private institutions to refuse to reform the structures that push women out. Organizations should be asking themselves what they can do to make themselves more attractive to women, so they can reap the benefits of keeping us.

The refusal to change may well be the death knell for the stubborn “old boys’ clubs” of the world that will fail to take advantage of the exceptional investment, communication and leadership skills of women and thus fail to remain competitive.

In the meantime, our leaders should stop asking women to take personal responsibility for systemic failings. Our ambition (or lack thereof) is not the problem.


Sexy Hamburgers: A Feminist’s Guide to Halloween

It’s almost Sexy Costume Day! I mean, Halloween. My wife and I love Halloween because it gives us an excuse to pull out our glue gun and have a craft day. We usually make our costumes, but a few weeks ago we went to one of those pop-up Halloween shops to get some inspiration. I guess it had been a while since we’ve been in one, because we were pretty surprised by what we saw. For one, there was not one woman’s costume in the entire store that was not “sexy”. Even costumes that you would think should not be sexy, were sexy. Like sexy potato head, sexy minion, sexy Bert and Ernie and sexy hamburger. Seriously, there was a sexy hamburger.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to use this is an excuse to post photos of scantily clad women dressed as sexy scrabble. I thought I’d let some dudes demonstrate instead.

But these costumes are for adult women with agency, so no harm right? I’m not going to answer that just yet. I want to first tell you about our second observation in the Halloween store, this one in the kids’ section.

In this store, there were little girl costumes and little boy costumes. But despite the fact that between the ages of 4 and 6, little girl bodies and little boy bodies are pretty much the same, the costumes were very different. The little girl costumes looked like miniature versions of sexy _______ (fill in the blank).

00_21_van_halloweenkids_contributedYou’ve probably read about the mom in Victoria who took her 4-year-old daughter shopping for a Halloween costume at Value Village. The little girl wanted to be a firefighter. Her mother found a cute firefighting costume in the boys’ section. It had an axe, a fire hat and a red jacket.

She then found the equivalent costume in the girls’ section. It had a skin-tight black shiny dress and a fascinator in the place of a fire hat. The police officer costume was equally appalling. The little girl version was a dress with a short skirt. In real life, policewomen have not had to wear skirts as part of their uniform since 1990.[i] And this was a change women really fought for.

“What those costumes tell me is that the boys can wear the real thing. They can be a real firefighter. The girls, on the other hand can’t. They can dress up pretty and pretend to be a firefighter, but they could never aspire to be the real thing.”[ii]

This should be especially concerning when you consider that firefighting remains very male dominated and has traditionally been a hostile workplace for women. In 2006, allegations of severe sexual harassment were made by women firefighters from Richmond, BC. The alleged incidents included hard-core pornography being displayed in their presence, human feces being put in a woman’s boots and pants, a condom with the word “cunt” written on it being placed in a woman’s locker and water pressure being turned off as a woman battled a fire. [iii]

Fortunately for the mother in this story, Value Village heard her complaints and decided to take down these gender specific costumes.

But not all shops are so progressive. If the store I went to was any indication, there are sexy toddler costumes being sold all over Canada.

I don’t think it is difficult to understand why sexualizing a 4-year-old is problematic. For one, it’s pedophilic. But more than that, it can have a very significant impact on how girls and women see themselves.

In the documentary Miss Representation (which I highly encourage anyone with Netflix to watch), author Jean Kilbourne talks about the message these sexualized images send to young girls.

“Girls get the message from very early on that what’s most important is how they look, that their value, their worth, depends on that. And boys get the message that this is what’s important about girls….So, no matter what else a woman does, no matter what else her achievements, their value still depends on how they look.”[iv]

The documentary goes on to discuss how this sexualisation leads girls to self-objectify which has disastrous consequences.

“The American Psychological Association has found in recent years that self-objectification has become a national epidemic, a national problem. The more women and girls self-objectify, the more likely they are to be depressed, to have eating disorders. They have lower confidence. They have lower ambition. They have lower cognitive functioning. They have lower GPAs.” [v]

In Canada, women are not well represented in leadership positions. Only 17% of Conservative Members of Parliament are women. The percentages for the NDP and Liberals are 38% and 25% respectively. BC has the highest rate of women MLAs in Canada at 36%. The other provinces and territories range from 10% (Northwest Territories) to 35% (Ontario).[vi]

Could there be a connection? Dr. Caroline Heldman, a professor of political science, says yes. Women who are high self-objectifiers have lower political efficacy. Political efficacy is the idea that your voice matters in politics and that you can bring about political change. As she sees it, if we have a whole generation of young people being raised with the message that the objectification of women is normal, we have a whole generation of women who are less likely to run for office and less likely to vote.

So after 18 years of being told by advertising, films, television shows, pop-up Halloween stores, you name it, that our value as women lies in our bodies, how free is our choice to buy a sexy adult Halloween costume? Are we dressing as sexy a Girl Guide because we would feel awesome and empowered in that costume? Or have we been conditioned by marketing and social pressure? To be honest, these are very complicated questions that I do not have an answer to (Philosophy 101 was my only B in undergrad).

But here is something I can answer. Is it possible to enjoy Halloween in a socially conscious way? The answer to that question is YES! Here are my Do’s and Don’ts for selecting a totally awesome, feminist Halloween costume.

#1 Do celebrate women heroes

There are so many women heroes in history, literature and modern day who have made a difference, fought the system, broken the glass ceiling, bent gender norms and kicked some serious ass. Why not celebrate one of them? There’s Katniss, Hermione, the Paper Bag Princess, Amelia Earhart and Rosie the Riveter, just to name a few.

#2 Do not appropriate someone else’s culture

I’ll admit, it took me an embarrassingly long time to understand that this is a problem. When I was a kid I once dressed up as Tiger Lily from Peter Pan. Another year, I wore my mother’s burqa from her days living in Saudi Arabia. It really didn’t occur to me that dressing up as someone else’s culture would be offensive. The way I reasoned it, I would not be offended if someone dressed up as a lumberjack or fur trader to represent a Canadian. Well, as I’ve learned, that is because this is not a proper analogy. “There are no pervasive stereotypes for whites on the same level that allow for them to be caricatured as a Halloween costume.” [vii]  And Canadians are not a marginalized group.

untitledStudents from Ohio University have launched a campaign to make revelers think twice before reducing a culture to a caricature. The message: We’re a culture, not a costume.[viii] When we dress up as another culture, we reduce sacred and culturally significant attire. We perpetuate inaccurate, stereotypical and often offensive portrayals of someone else’s heritage. We temporarily “play” an exotic other without experiencing any of the daily discrimination faced by them, like dressing up as a “sexy squaw” while being completely unaware of the horrific rates of sexual violence Aboriginal women face.[ix]

#3 Do not dress as a famous oppressor

This seems so obvious, but every year people dress in horrible costumes that glamorize violence and violations of human and civil rights. In 2005, Prince Harry dressed up for a costume party with a swastika on his arm. This year, men have been reported dressing up as Ray Rice, the football player who punched his then-fiancé in an elevator. This is incredibly disrespectful to women who have been victims of domestic violence. And there are a lot of us. One half of all Canadian women have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence.[x] Dressing up as an oppressor trivializes real discrimination, persecution and violence. It can also re-victimize survivors.

#4 Do not dress as a member of a marginalized group

I think most people know that it is not ok for a white person to don blackface. Yet people dress as other marginalized groups all the time: Indian, hobo, illegal immigrant. This is what one Aboriginal woman had to say about people dressing as a Native person:

“But you don’t understand what it feels like to be me. I am a Native person. You are (most likely) a white person. You walk through life everyday never having the fear of someone misrepresenting your people and your culture. You don’t have to worry about the vast majority of your people living in poverty, struggling with alcoholism, domestic violence, hunger, and unemployment caused by 500+ years of colonialism and federal policies aimed at erasing your existence. You don’t walk thought life everyday feeling invisible, because the only images the public sees of you are fictionalized stereotypes that don’t represent who you are at all. You don’t know what it is like to care about something so deeply and know at your core that it’s so wrong and have others in positions of power dismiss you like you’re some sort of over-sensitive freak.”[xi]

#5 Do highlight your talents

383940_794751944775_1584700703_nHalloween is an opportunity to get creative and think outside the box. It is also an opportunity to make a statement. A few Halloweens ago my wife and I went as Mrs. and Mrs. Potato Head. Not only was the costume a political statement about gay marriage, it had super awesome Velcro facial features that we could swap around all night.

#6 Do not denigrate women who choose a sexy costume

Some women find demonstrating their sexuality really empowering when they can do it safely and without pressure or judgment. Halloween is, for some women, one of the only days of the year that they feel comfortable really having their sexuality on display.[xii] That is great. These women do not deserve judgment. “Slut shaming” is a different side of the same sexist coin. Instead of assigning women value for being sexy, it strips women of value for being too sexy.[xiii] But ultimately, it is still determining a woman’s value based on her appearance. That is not ok.

Bottom line, have a great time this Halloween, but don’t do it at someone else’s expense. Halloween is not an excuse to leave your feminism at the door.



[i] http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/08/17/female-mounties-wear-pants-boots_n_1797203.html

[ii] http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/sexy-halloween-kids-costumes-at-value-village-anger-mom-1.2805428

[iii] http://www.canada.com/story.html?id=7817f631-f71c-4f55-8630-8589aebd718b

[iv] http://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/movie_script.php?movie=miss-representation

[v] http://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/movie_script.php?movie=miss-representation

[vi] http://www.equalvoice.ca/assets/file/Fundamental%20Facts%20-%20Elected%20Women%20in%20Canada%20by%20the%20Numbers(1).pdf

[vii] http://www.cnn.com/2011/10/26/living/halloween-ethnic-costumes/

[viii] http://www.cnn.com/2011/10/26/living/halloween-ethnic-costumes/

[ix] http://bitchmagazine.org/post/costume-cultural-appropriation

[x] http://www.wavaw.ca/mythbusting/rape-myths/

[xi] http://nativeappropriations.com/2011/10/open-letter-to-the-pocahotties-and-indian-warriors-this-halloween.html

[xii] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/31/in-defense-of-sexy-halloween-costumes_n_4182233.html

[xiii] http://thoughtcatalog.com/chloe-angyal/2013/10/youre-not-a-feminist-if-you-call-halloween-costumes-slutty/

The Jilted Ex-Girlfriend: The resurrection of rape myths in Canada

It is almost Halloween and to celebrate the occasion I had planned to write a post about Halloween costumes gone wrong. But then something much scarier happened that demanded my attention. Tens of thousands of people across Canada, some of whom my friends and family, took up the cause of an alleged abuser of women. You all know who I’m taking about. Jian Ghomeshi, the popular CBC radio host of ‘Q’ whose employment was recently terminated amid allegations about his sex life.

Ghomeshi’s fans have voiced their support for him and their anger at CBC management for terminating his employment. They have proclaimed his innocence. They have attacked his accusers. And they have demand retribution for his firing. And with these passionate cries, they have given new life to age old rape myths.

We all know the story. Man dates woman. Man breaks up with woman. Woman is upset. She decides to seek revenge by fabricating allegations of sexual assault to ruin man’s life. Man is branded as rapist and loses job, public respect, friends etc. even though he is innocent.

Sound familiar?

“I’ve been fired from the CBC because of the risk of my private sex life being made public as a result of a campaign of false allegations pursued by a jilted ex girlfriend and a freelance writer….

Despite a strong connection between us it became clear to me that our on-and-off dating was unlikely to grow into a larger relationship and I ended things in the beginning of this year. She was upset by this and sent me messages indicating her disappointment that I would not commit to more, and her anger that I was seeing others.

After this, in the early spring there began a campaign of harassment, vengeance and demonization against me that would lead to months of anxiety….

She found some sympathetic ears by painting herself as a victim and turned this into a campaign.”

Since this post appeared on Ghomeshi’s Facebook page Sunday evening, it has been liked by 109,082 people and shared by 41,328 people. There is even a petition at Change.org to show support for the radio host.

As a woman, I find this familiar narrative disturbing. But much more frightening to me is how quickly it has been accepted by the public without question or critical inquiry. I would hazard a guess that not many of the tens of thousands of people who have liked and shared Ghomeshi’s post have actually met him. And I would be willing to bet that not one of them knows what actually happened between Ghomeshi and his accusers.

But here is what we do know.

At this point, four women have come forward to allege sexual violence perpetrated by Ghomeshi. The allegations are serious. Three women say that Ghomeshi physically attacked them on dates without consent.  They allege he struck them with a closed fist or open hand; bit them; choked them until they almost passed out; covered their nose and mouth so that they had difficulty breathing; and verbally abused them during and after sex.1

The fourth woman was Ghomeshi’s co-worker at the CBC. She says that Ghomeshi groped her from behind while at work and told her “I want to hate f— you.” The woman says she reported this behavior to a union representative but no real action was taken and she left the broadcaster shortly thereafter.1

Thanks to years of research, we also know quite a lot about sexual assault. Here are some highlights.

#1 Sexual assault is terrifyingly common

Statistics show that one in four Canadian women will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime. In British Columbia, that number is almost double at 47%.2

In 2009, there were 677,000 self-reported sexual assaults in Canada.

#2 Sexual assault is very rarely reported

Studies indicate that only 6-8% of sexual assaults are reported to police.3 The numbers for “date rape” are even worse, only 1-2% of these assaults are reported to police.4 Acquaintance sexual assault is the most underreported crime in Canada.

#3 Women do not routinely fabricate allegations of sexual assault

It is a common rape myth that women lie about being sexually assaulted to get revenge, for their own benefit, or because they feel guilty afterwards about having sex. The reality is that women rarely make false reports about sexual assault. False accusations of rape happen no more often than false reports of other types of crimes: about 2-4%. This means that 96-98% of sexual assault reports are true.2

#4 Women do not report sexual assault because of how we as a society treat victims

Women choose not to report sexual assault for many reasons including re-victimization by the police and courts, low conviction rates, fear of the rapist, feelings of shame and guilt and fear of public harassment.2

More than half of the 1,609 women who responded to a poll carried out by the parenting website Mumsnet said they would not report a sexual assault because the legal system, media and society at large are unsympathetic to rape victims.5

None of the four women who have alleged violence by Ghomeshi have filed police complaints or agreed to go on the record. The reasons given include the fear that they would be sued or would be the object of internet retaliation.

Can we blame them? Last year, a woman wrote about a bad date with a Canadian radio host some believe to be Ghomeshi. In the days following the post, the woman received hundreds of abusive messages and threats. An online video that has been viewed over 397,000 times called her a “scumbag of the internet.”1

#5 Rapists are often someone we know

Sexual assault is not most often committed by strangers. In over 80% of sexual assaults, the perpetrator is someone known to the victim. In 38% of cases, the perpetrator is the woman’s husband, common-law partner or boyfriend.6

Studies of rapists show that they are not mentally ill or sexually starved, they are ordinary men. They come from every economic, ethnic, racial, age and social group. Similarly, women who are sexually assaulted are from every economic, ethnic, racial, age and social group.2

Sometimes, rapists are famous personalities loved by the public. Take the late BBC host Jimmy Savile as an example. It wasn’t until almost a year after his death that his victims were able to come forward. But when they did, the numbers were staggering. Savile has now been accused of sexually abusing 450 victims ranging from prepubescent girls and boys to adults.8 Or consider Australia’s Rolf Harris. It took more than 30 years before his victims were able to come forward.7 In June 2014 he was convicted of 12 counts of indecent assault between 1969 and 1986 on four victims who, at the time, were between the ages of 8 and 19.9

To be absolutely clear, I am not saying Ghomeshi is guilty of the sexual violence he is accused of. I don’t know that. What I am saying is neither do we know that he is not guilty. I’m saying we the public should not allow ourselves to re-victimize a potential victim of sexual assault. We need to think critically and not jump to conclusions based on a familiar narrative that has no basis in fact.

The narrative of the jilted ex-girlfriend harms victims of violence who are abused all over again, this time by tens of thousands of people all over the world. And it harms all women, because every time a potential victim is viciously attacked on the internet the message to the rest of us, the one in four of us who will experience sexual assault, is to keep quiet.

The narrative is false. The truth is he can ruin her life, far worse than she can ruin his.



  1. CBC fires Ghomeshi over sex allegations: Kevin Donovan and Jesse Brown http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2014/10/26/cbc_fires_jian_ghomeshi_over_sex_allegations.html
  2. Rape Myths: VAVAW http://www.wavaw.ca/mythbusting/rape-myths/
  3. Statistics: VAVAW http://www.wavaw.ca/mythbusting/statistics/
  4. Sexual Assault Statistics in Canada http://www.sexassault.ca/statistics.htm
  5. 80% of women don’t report rape or sexual assault, survey claims: Martin Beckford http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/9134799/Sexual-assault-survey-80-of-women-dont-report-rape-or-sexual-assault-survey-claims.html
  6. Sexual Assault Statistics: SACHA http://sacha.ca/fact-sheets/statistics
  7. Liking ‘Q’ isn’t a good enough reason to side with Jian: Justine Beach http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/justin-beach/jian-ghomeshi-fired-cbc_b_6051938.html?utm_hp_ref=tw
  8. Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimmy_Savile_sexual_abuse_scandal
  9. Rolf Harris: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rolf_Harris#Charges

Stepping Out of Line: How wearing shorts became a punishable offence


The incident of September 27, 2014 has been described as a black cloud over the Vancouver Women’s Field Hockey League. A shocking event that lit up the channels of communication in the field hockey community like never before. A scandal for the League and a source of shame for my field hockey club. The outcome was an investigation to which only one side was invited, a harsh rebuke and a grave threat about future “misconduct”.

So what actually happened that day?

The Truth

A few years ago, my wife and I decided that we would no longer play field hockey in a skirt. We were adults, we were playing in a beer league and we decided that it was time to openly reject the outdated and discriminatory beliefs about women’s sports that the skirt represents. So we went out and we bought shorts the same colour and approximately the same length as our teammates’ skirts. For while, we played without incident. And then September 27, 2014 happened.

On that day, my wife and I took the field in our shorts, as had become our custom. And at first, the game proceeded like any other. At some point in the first half of the game, one of the referees noticed that I was wearing shorts. When she asked me why, I told her it was an ideological choice.

At halftime, the referee spoke to my team captain and told her that she would have to make a notation on our game card that two of our players were out of uniform. This had happened before and so my captain agreed. However, after speaking to the mother of one of the opposing players, the referee changed her mind and decided that the penalty should be much harsher. She told my captain that no player wearing shorts would be allowed back on the field.

This caught me and my team off-guard. Being thrown out of the game is a pretty extreme penalty for a uniform infraction in a recreational league. Uniform infractions, after all, are very common. Players often don’t have the right colour socks or skirts, sometimes players wear glasses or hats, and in winter almost all of us wear leggings and shirts in various colours to stay warm. None of us had ever heard of such a serious penalty for such a minor infraction. In fact, in my seven years of playing in this league, I have never seen such a serious penalty for any infraction.

On top of everything, this penalty would have left our team short-handed. It was a call that likely would have cost us the game.

As a team, and under our coach’s direction, we decided to take the field. All of us.

As centre-forward, I stepped up to ball to wait for the referee’s whistle.   As I did, the referee told me that she would not start the game until I left the field. I told her politely that I would wait. And so that is what we did.

After a few minutes, the referee told us she was calling the game and that my team would forfeit. One of my teammates who had found the league constitution on her phone approached the referee and calmly advised her that the constitution did not provide for such a penalty. She told her that we have played in shorts for a long time and we had never been told that we might face such punishment. The referee told my teammate that she would discuss the matter with the other official. My teammate thanked her and then left her to confer.

The referee ultimately decided to let us play with the issue to be referred later to the Games Committee. In the end, the game was a tie. We shook hands with the other team and my captain apologized to the referee so there would be no hard feelings.

At no point in the game did anyone raise their voice, utter expletives or speak to the referee in anger. All my teammates and I did was express our disagreement with the skirt requirement and the unduly harsh penalty through respectful dialogue and peaceful resistance. We are a team of professional women after all and field hockey is something we do for fun.

Ironically, there were other uniform infractions on the field that day that went unnoticed by the officials. One player on the other team was playing in eyeglasses. Unlike the skirt requirement, the prohibition on eyeglasses has a fairly rational purpose. It is to prevent glass from shattering into a player’s eyes if hit by a ball. The player with the eyeglasses actually did get hit in the face that game. But the referees said nothing. It was at that moment that I knew the referee’s reaction was not about my compliance with the strict letter of the constitution. It was about my rejection of the belief system represented by the skirt. It was about a woman stepping out of line.

The Fallout

Any hope that I had that this would blow over and my wife and I could continue playing the sport we love without incident was shattered on the evening of October 2, 2014.

At 11pm that night, the women’s captain of my field hockey club forwarded to my whole team an email from the league president. Apparently, a complaint had been filed with the Games Committee about the incident of September 27, 2014. The Games Committee, made up of representatives of each field hockey club, deliberated on my team’s fate without ever giving us an opportunity to present our side of the dispute. It was recommended that our “poor conduct” on September 27, 2014 be punished with two of the harshest penalties available in this league: a red card for our captain with a suspension and fine and a forfeit of the last game for our team.

The league executive decided that this time we would be given a formal warning, but that stepping out of line again would not be tolerated.

In her email to our team captain, the league president, who herself was not present on September 27, said the following:

Now that the reports have been reviewed by both the Games Committee and the League Executive, I am writing to inform you that this kind of blatant disregard for the league constitution and total disrespect of the officials will absolutely not be tolerated. …

[The umpires] are there to uphold the rules of the league, FIH and FHBC and they are able to card a player who deliberately breaks any of these rules and are certainly permitted to red card any player who intentionally misbehaves in a serious manner towards another player, umpire or other match official.

The league will not allow umpires to be subjected to the abuse, harassment and aggressive behaviour as was witnessed last weekend and you were all very fortunate not to have been given red cards there and then.  Should you or your team mates repeat this type of behaviour, red cards, along with the game suspensions and fines that accompany them, will be issued.

A few days later, at our next game, the president of my club took it upon himself to wade into the dispute. Without the permission of my coach, he decided that it would be appropriate to deliver a speech at halftime about how ashamed we should be of ourselves. This man has never known what it is like to be a victim of sexploitation. He has never had to choose between a sport he loves and his principles. He has no idea what it is like being a woman in sports. And yet here he was speaking to a group of professional women about how we had humiliated our club and tarnished its good name and how we best do everything in our power to repair the damage we had done. He told us that our conduct was inexcusable and shameful.

He didn’t have time to finish his speech at halftime so he came back at our next practice to finish putting us in our place. When my teammate asked him what he had done as our representative to investigate the false allegations against us, he told us that it wasn’t his place to get involved.

Feeling a little confused? You are not alone.

My teammates and I racked our brains trying to remember what conduct on our part could be characterized as abusive, aggressive or harassing. We came up with nothing. We simply could not reconcile our collective recollection of the game with the conduct that had been ascribed to us.

My teammates and I are not thugs. We are professional women in our mid-twenties to early fifties. We are nurses, pharmacists, accountants, lawyers, paramedics and scientists. Some of us are even mothers.

The only thing we could come up with is that our rejection of the antiquated skirt rule was so offensive that any dialogue, no matter how respectful, was perceived as a threat.

Of course, it doesn’t matter anyway, because no one in the League or even in our own club seems to care about what actually happened. It seems that everyone is content to perpetuate the rumours and misrepresentations that have been flying around the field hockey community. Content to attack the character of professional women who have to work and live in this city.

The Silver Lining

DCF 1.0At a personal level, this controversy has taken its toll. In the last two weeks I have felt more sadness, outrage and disbelief than I usually feel in a year. I have been blown away by how strongly people feel about what I put on my body. I have even contemplated leaving this sport altogether.

But it has not been all bad. I have also felt tremendous gratitude towards my teammates and coach who continue to stand beside me in this struggle.  I have seen firsthand how strong, brave, insightful and passionate my teammates are, and it makes me hopeful for the future. My team is my silver lining.

Looking Forward

Buoyed by our teammates’ support and kind words, my wife and I decided that we will not be leaving field hockey. But neither will we give up the fight.

The League has taken away our voice on the field, but they can’t take away our freedom off of it. It is our hope that we will be able to use this ugliness as an opportunity to make real, meaningful change. Not with anger or violence but with hope and principles and determination. The first step is raising awareness so please share our story with anyone who will listen. And if this is an issue you care about, please contact me. This is not over. We look forward to hearing from you.


This is Part 3 of a series about Women in Sports. Find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Fit for the Bedroom, Fit for the Field: My beef with women’s uniforms

What do lingerie, bikinis and miniskirts have in common? If you answered a teenage boy’s wet dream, you are only partially correct. These three articles of clothing are also all sporting uniforms worn by women athletes. StateLibQld_1_45199_Two_women_sparring_with_a_speed_bag

Women have fought hard over the last hundred years for the freedom to play all the sports men play. And in large part, we have succeeded. The London 2012 Olympics were the first Olympics ever where women were permitted to compete in every sport contested by men. This is significant progress when you consider that in ancient Olympics a woman’s participation was punishable by death.

Wouldn’t it be great if that were the end of sex discrimination in sports? How I wish I could end this post here and congratulate the human race on its considerable evolution.

Sadly, equal participation does not mean equal respect. Women athletes continue to be differentiated from male athletes in terms of influence, resources and media coverage. But today I’m going to talk about another way women athletes are distinguished: uniforms. Let’s start with some examples.

Lingerie Football League


“LFL65” by Sevan Pulurian is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

I’ll admit, when my co-worker told me about the Lingerie Football League, I thought she was pulling my leg. For those of you who don’t know about the Lingerie Football League, it is a full contact professional football league where women play wearing lingerie and the most basic of football pads. The women athletes are not paid, although the coaches and managers are. The league is marketed primarily to beer drinking male college students over the age of 21.1

The uniforms in this league may be outrageous, but the players are no joke. Women in this league are exceptional athletes who truly love the game. And they take it seriously, spending at least six hours a week practicing on the field, rehearsing and studying complicated plays. So why would they be willing to play in lingerie? Well for starters, this league is the only professional women’s football league. For these women, the choice is stark. The price of playing the game they love at a high level is to dress up like Victoria’s Secret models and risk having their tops or bottoms ripped right off. Yes, that sort of thing actually happens in this league.2

Beach Volleyball


“Bump up” by Craig Maccubbin is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Until March 2012, the mandatory uniform for a female beach volleyball player was a bikini. And not just any bikini would do, the bikini could have a maximum side width of 7 cm. By contrast, men beach volleyball players wear shorts and a sleeveless shirt. Fortunately, this rule was changed heading into the 2012 London Olympics out of respect for the cultural beliefs of some participating countries.3 While this rule change is commendable, it is a little disappointing that the International Volleyball Federation did not recognize that the bikini might be problematic for reasons other than religion.

Boxing, Badminton and Field Hockey

With the addition of women’s boxing to the 2012 London Olympics, the Amateur International Boxing Association faced a major dilemma: how would the spectators tell the difference between the male and female boxers? To address this serious problem, it was proposed that female boxers be required to wear skirts.4

Badminton’s international governing body faced a different dilemma: how could they attract more fans? Looking to beach volleyball for inspiration, the body proposed that female badminton players be required to wear skirts rather than shorts to achieve a more “stylish presentation of the players”.4

In both cases, there was uproar. And in both cases, the skirt was made optional.


“China vs S. Korea, Women’s Olympic Hockey” by Ben Freeman is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Unfortunately, not all women athletes are so lucky. From beer leagues to international competitions, field hockey continues to require all female athletes to wear skirts.

So much has been written about the wardrobes of female athletes. But the question of what women should wear when competing in sports has a very simple answer: why not the same uniforms as men?

For the most part, the justification goes like this: in order for women’s sports to get media attention and funding, they need to attract an audience, and what better way to do that than to make it about sex. As the Lingerie Football League openly admits, sex sells.

The other justification I’ve heard is that skirts honour tradition. Now I don’t know about you, but as a woman I am always a bit skeptical of any argument based on tradition. After all, I can think of a good number of traditions that do not deserve honour. Nonetheless, I decided to research the tradition of skirt wearing in field hockey (and by research, I mean I asked google). It might surprise you to know that the internet does not have an answer. The best I could find was an educated guess by a long-term field hockey player and coach. Her answer to the most commonly asked question about field hockey was:

“I really don’t know. Wikipedia doesn’t even have a satisfactory answer so that must mean no one does. It might be a vestige of field hockey’s origins in the US. Constance Applebee, an Englishwoman, introduced America to the sport in the early 1900’s at women’s colleges like Vassar, Wellesley, Smith and Bryn Mawr. I imagine women didn’t have Nike tempo shorts back then, so they wore skirts and it stuck. I have no idea though.”5

no authNow to be clear, Constance Applebee did not wear a spandex miniskirt that is the modern day field hockey uniform. She wore a full length skirt. And not necessarily because she loved said skirt or thought it was a very practical uniform for field hockey, but because in the early 1900’s women were not permitted to wear anything else. Not out grocery shopping, not on an afternoon walk, not swimming and not to the ballot box (because of course another tradition of that time was that women were not allowed to vote). I shudder to think what my life would look like if other traditions from the 1900’s were as jealously guarded as the field hockey skirt.

So why is mandating a feminine uniform such a big deal? The United Nations and the Australian Sports Commission say because it sexualizes women athletes. The sexualisation of women athletes is so pervasive it even has a name: sexploitation. Sexploitation is a serious problem for many reasons, but here are the top 6:

  1. It trivializes women’s sports.

Feminine uniforms such as skirts draw attention away from the athlete’s skill and towards her body, suggesting that the value of women’s sports somehow derives from the appearance of the female athletes.6 Don’t believe me? A recent study found that sexualized images of female athletes in the media led viewers to see them as “less talented, less aggressive, and less heroic than athletes whose athleticism received more attention.”7 I think this comic makes my point.


  1. It lowers the self-esteem of girls and young women.

Sexualized images of female athletes in the media prompt adolescent girls and young women to self-objectify and focus on outer beauty. Rather than empowering young athletes and having a positive influence on women’s sports, sexualized images actually lead women and girls to feel negatively about their own bodies and may result in lower self-esteem.7

  1. It perpetuates stereotypes about women.

Much of the freedom that girls and women feel when participating in sports is because it allows them to escape from the restrictions of traditional gender roles. However, sexploitation of female athletes reinforces gender stereotyping.8 Case in point, I came across a wikiHow article entitled, “How to be Ladylike (Teens)”. The article, which had been viewed 37,556 times, consists of 17 directions to teens who are “having trouble being ladylike.” Amid suggestions such as “dislike dirty things” and “don’t smile too much” is the following:

Avoid sports, especially football, basketball and other manly sports. Being sporty and fit may be nice but sports does not make you seem particularly ladylike, though horse-back riding does. If you are interested in sports, field hockey is a classic women’s sport in the US and involves adorable skirts!”9

  1. It discourages participation in sports.

The sexualisation of women athletes creates a certain expectation about what an athlete should look like. Studies show that the pressure many female athletes experience to conform to that standard results in decreased body esteem, distracted playing and poor game time performance.7 And for some women and girls, a revealing uniform is reason enough to choose another sport or even no sport at all. Sexy uniforms may be culturally inappropriate for some women, they may be seen as sexist or embarrassing, they may make women feel more self-conscious about their bodies and they may alienate lesbians who don’t conform to the stereotypical heterosexual image.8

  1. It promotes sexual harassment.

The United Nations and the Australian Sports Commission have both found that sexploitation puts athletes at greater risk of harassment, exploitation and violence from persons within and outside their sport.8 In Canada, this is a real problem. In a survey of female athletes, 40-50 per cent reported harassment in sport.6

  1. It is darn impractical.

“Wedgie” by Nathan Rupert is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

My wife refers to the field hockey skirt as the $40 wedgie. Anyone who has watched a field hockey game knows why. From what I have read, volleyball players have a similar problem. And then there’s the poor women of the Lingerie Football League who are seriously under-padded and who risk losing what little uniform they have altogether.

I’m sure you can think of many more reasons why sexy or feminine uniforms are a problem, but the bottom line is despite the major strides women athletes have made, they continue to receive less respect, less dignity, less worth than male athletes.

This is an issue I care about personally because field hockey, the sport that I love and have played for over 15 years, is one of the worst offenders. Believing, as I do, in equality and respect for women’s sports, I decided to challenge the antiquated skirt rule. What I was met with was anger, indignation, prejudice and, I’ll say it, hate. For my efforts I was chastised, shamed and threatened with the harshest penalties known to field hockey. And I’m dying to tell you all about it. In my next post.


This is Part 2 of the Women & Sports series.  Find Part 1 here.


  1. Pass, Run, Walk: Lingerie Football and Slut Walks: Melanie Persaud http://blog.ywcatoronto.org/pass-run-walk-lingerie-football-and-slutwalks/
  2. Lingerie Football: So Sexy or Just Sexist? Female Players Say They Love the Game: Juju Chang and Allison Markowitz http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/lingerie-football-sexy-sexist-female-players-love-game/story?id=20318487
  3. Uniform change for all beach volleyball events: FIVB http://www.fivb.org/viewPressRelease.asp?No=33699&Language=en#.VDlhXn5ra00
  4. At London Olympics, women’s athletes’ wardrobes are source of debate: Liz Clarke http://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/olympics/at-london-olympics-womens-athletes-wardrobes-are-source-of-debate/2012/07/26/gJQAPcrQCX_story.html
  5. Field Hockey FAQ: Jane Beall http://wlusidelines.wordpress.com/2012/04/18/field-hockey-faq/
  6. Women, Gender Equality and Sport: United Nations, Division for the Advancement of Women, Department of Economic and Social Affairs http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/public/Women%20and%20Sport.pdf
  7. Media Coverage of Female Athletes and Its Effect on the Self-Esteem of Young Women: Scott Aligo http://ydi.tamu.edu/wp-content/uploads/researchBrief29_final.pdf
  8. Sexploitation: Australian Sports Commission http://fulltext.ausport.gov.au/fulltext/2000/ascweb/sexploitation.asp
  9. How to be Ladylike (Teens): wikiHow http://www.wikihow.com/Be-Ladylike-(Teens)